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Second World War at Sea: Bomb Alley» Forums » Reviews

Subject: This is a Game I Really Wanted to Like, But... rss

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joe mcgrath
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Stukas screaming out of a bright southern sky, pouncing on a Royal Navy squadron heading for Malta...Beaufighters sweeping in low to strafe an Africa-bound Italian convoy, barely clearing the ship’s masts...Dreaded Sparviero torpedo bombers of the Regia Aeronautica skimming the wave tops as they bear down on a British cruiser... This is the drama and excitement recreated in Second World War At Sea: Bomb Alley! Or so I hoped.

This is a game that I really wanted to like, but it kept giving me reasons not to. I’m fascinated by the naval war in the Med, a campaign that has not been widely treated in our hobby, and had never played the Second World War At Sea system. After doing some research on BGG, I concluded that this version was just right for me. So it was with great anticipation that I acquired a copy and dove right in.

My doubts began with the box art: a dramatic painting of a sailor pushing a floating mine away from a ship. Huh?! I thought I the game was ‘Bomb Alley’, not, ‘Mine Alley’. What a poor design choice. There would be more...

COMPONENTS
The production values in this game are disappointing. The dominant component is of course the map. It’s a beautiful depiction of the entire Mediterranean from Gibraltar to the Levant, printed on two paper sheets which meet in the middle. Or I should say ‘divide’ in the middle, because the two halves don’t match up! If you align the Greek coast, then the Libyan is out of kilter; if you line up North Africa, then Greece is cockeyed – and this is a second edition copy, mind you. It’s no small thing in a game of naval warfare when they can’t get the coastlines coast lines right!

The counters are lovely to behold – hundreds of colorfully depicted ships and aircraft: Italian, British, French, German, Commonwealth, and various other combatants. But here, too, some design decisions puzzled my mind - and hurt my eyes. On aircraft counters the print size of the model numbers is absurdly small. I wear glasses when I read or play games, but I needed a magnifying glass to read these counters. And this is important because aircraft of a very similar appearance and type can have VASTLY different characteristics, depending on their model # - “Is that little bomber an SM79-2, or an SM79-3, or an SM81?”; “Is that teeny fighter an RE2001, or an RE2002, or an RE2005?”. Now imagine asking yourself that question hundreds of times while holding that magnifier as you sort through all the ship and aircraft counters to set up a scenario.

Counter color choices are another head-scratcher to me: most Italian AC are tan-colored; the background color for Italian counters is yellow. Tan aircraft on yellow counters are awfully difficult to see – and there are almost 150 like that! Another example: dive-bombers are designated with an orange triangle symbol; some of them are printed on counters that have an orange background, making them symbol almost impossible to see. You don’t have to be a graphic artist to know that these are poor design choices.

There’s more. Aircraft counters have two sides: full-strength and depleted, but there are no distinguishing markings on the depleted side. Depleted combat values are less, typically halved, but unless you’ve memorized the fact that, say, a Z.1007 bomber has an attack value of 3, reduced to 2 on its depleted side, then you have no way of knowing which side of the counter you’re looking at, so you must constantly pick up and flip counters over to compare sides. A simple graphic device on the depleted side – a diagonal pink stripe, for example - would have easily fixed this. Which leads me to two more problems...

The British and German counters are printed on a thick stock material and laser-cut, making them feel substantial and easily handled. But the Italian counters - half of the total game counters - are printed on thin, glossy cardboard, making them seem flimsy by comparison, and well-nigh impossible to pick up without tweezers. And you will be doing LOTS of picking-up-and-flipping-over counters in this game (see previous paragraph).

Another annoying design decision is the absolute proliferation of aircraft models. The Italians, for example, have 4 or 5 aircraft models of which there are 4 or fewer counters in the game. Can you think of a reason you’d need to include 2 counters of an obscure ‘Z.501’ float plane? I CANT (that’s a pun). This is chrome for the sake of chrome, a niggling detail that forces you to spend more time with tweezers and magnifier going through piles of invisible tan-on-yellow aircraft counters with miniscule print, without benefit. Did the Z.105 float plane exist? Yes. Does that make for a more accurate order of battle/a better simulation? I suppose. Does including it in this game enhance the playing experience? Quite the opposite! More on this particular debate later. Much more...

A word about the naval counters – there are, after all, ships in this game. They are much better designed than the aircraft: pleasing to the eye – beautiful, even – and functional. It bothers me that the counter- and silhouette-size of all ship types are the same - destroyers the same size as battleships - but that’s a convention to which other naval games adhere, and a matter of personal taste.

Before we move on from components, one last gripe: there is a significant amount of record-keeping and paperwork required in this game - ship’s logs, task force composition sheets, airfield ops tracking sheets, hidden submarine tracking sheets, and the like. The examples of these documents included in the game are utterly unusable, and I had to spend hours creating my own. Like the map, a surprising omission in the second edition of an established game system.

RULES
The rules are so-so - I’ve seen worse, but sometimes the way they’re laid out is frustrating. An example: weather plays a crucial role, as you would imagine, and many aspects of the game are affected by it. These affects are scattered throughout the rules (for example, the torpedo boat section says “MTBs cannot be deployed if the weather is squall or worse.”), but there is no one place that lists all the consequences of the various weather states. In a game that has a too many tables – I counted 24 – there isn’t one for this most critical variable. Again, I had to make my own. (Are you seeing a pattern here?)

And while we’re on weather, I have another beef. The six possible weather states are: clear, cloudy, rain, squall, storm, and gale. At the beginning of each turn you roll a d6 to determine weather for that turn. Very simple. The weather effects on game play are huge – aircraft are essentially useless for turns with a WX roll of 4, 5, or 6. Now I’m no meteorologist, but that doesn’t feel right - on a typical day in Sicily are you really as likely to get a storm or a gale as you are to get sunshine or clouds? To me, the weather in this game seems more North Atlantic-ean than Mediterranean.

GAME PLAY
The sequence of play is one of the game’s strengths, logically integrating air, sea, and submarine forces, assigning them movement orders and, for aircraft, missions like anti-sub, fighter sweep, search, and strike. When forces come in contact and combat ensues, play is shifted to another map and scale. This tactical aspect of the game is also well done - the problem is that you hardly ever get to it.

In my first game I was frustrated because after much careful scouting, planning, (and superior admiralship) I was finally able to get my cruisers out of Taranto to intercept a convoy bound for Malta. But wait - despite good weather, I failed the ‘contact roll’, so no combat. On the next two turns a gale suddenly blew in, making contact impossible. The next three turns were night – again making contact very unlikely with any weather at all. My search AC failed its ‘spotting roll’ in the morning, making the convoy invisible, and the turn after that it safely made port. I had spent hours – literally hours – of set-up, planning, and play time to achieve that intercept, which resulted in nothing happening! Twice more that game I intercepted, but failed to contact, enemy task forces, resulting in ZERO surface combat. Now, is that an accurate depiction of what naval warfare in 1940 was really like? Quite possibly so: it’s a big sea, and ships frequently missed each other, even when they happened to be quite close. I get that. That was reality. But does that make for a fun game? An enjoyable experience? A satisfying return on several hours of playing time invested? Hardly.

But enough with surface combat. For me, what makes this campaign even more interesting is ship vs. aircraft combat. Alas, this was to be an even greater source of frustration with Bomb Alley...

If my ships couldn’t find each other in the first game, my planes couldn’t find my ships in the second. As a retired Air Force flier, I know that many things can cause a mission to fail. They are all here in this game, and missions often do fail - too often.
Here are all the things that must go right for a successful airstrike on enemy shipping:
• They must have been spotted with a successful search on this or the previous turn
• Weather must be good enough for air operations (don’t roll a 4, 5, or 6)
• It must be a daytime turn
• All air units must pass a ‘takeoff morale check’ (don’t roll a 1 or 2)
• All air units must pass a ‘safe takeoff check’ (don’t roll a 1)
• Once airborne, flights must make contact with the enemy fleet (roll 3+, 4+, or 5+, depending)
• You must survive enemy Combat Air Patrol
• You must survive enemy AA fire (fists full of AA fire dice – 6s are hits)
• Must roll to see if any bombs/torpedoes hit (5 or 6)
o Unless the unit is an Italian level bomber, which must roll a 6, then roll again and get a 5 or 6, to achieve a hit
• Roll for damage – some hits do nothing. In this game torpedoes are lethal, but even a torpedo hit has a 1-in-6 chance of doing ‘none’, or only slight damage; bombs often do very little damage at all, unless you roll high – 10, 11, or 12 with 2d6s.

Mind you, if you fail ANY ONE of these conditions, roll poorly at ANY STEP along the way, you inflict NO DAMAGE on the enemy. Now maybe that makes this game an extraordinarily accurate simulation of the myriad complexities of naval-strike aviation in the early 1940s, I don’t know. What I do know is that it doesn’t feel like fun. After hours of time invested, to have the final outcome be ‘nothing happened’, because you had one bad die roll (out of nine) on a few consecutive turns, that’s not fun or fulfilling - that’s the opposite of fun. That’s frustrating, and makes all the time I’ve invested in playing feel like time wasted.

CONCLUSION
This is a game that I really wanted to like, but that kept giving me reasons not to. To me, every wargame has a ratio of ‘fun-to-time spent’; in Bomb Alley that ratio is very low. It demands a lot of time: to learn the rules and become familiar with all the tables; time to set-up and break-down, sorting a multitude of little counters; time for planning how best to deploy your forces; several hours’ playing time; time to do the record-keeping and paperwork during game play; time to come up with useable player aids, log sheets, etc, all, in the end, for very little reward.

I’m a big fan of wargames that are rooted in reality, of designers that do their research, and of complex and challenging game play. That’s why I play real wargames, and not Risk or Battleship. I know that in the real world fleets pass undetected, aircraft are often grounded, bombs miss, and torpedoes fail to detonate. But I don’t play war games to have a real-world experience; I play to have an enjoyable experience. Wargames should be fun, and in the end, Second World War At Sea: Bomb Alley just wasn’t much fun.











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Paolo Desalvo
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Glad to see that someone else thinks it is a failure. I said that it was a mess here What are the primary differences between the 1st and 2nd editions?.
 
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Andrei Shlepov
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We played Star Fluxx, Star Munchkin, Dixit, and, of course, Bomb Alley.
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Now that's a great review.

I second many of your thoughts, especially re: map and logs. The map was really made not to match in any pleasing way. One half of it has to slide down, and you got different shallow waters configuration depending on which half is superimposed. I, too, had to make my own logs to be able to write orders in any legible way.

Series rules are purely theoretical in many places as if no one was intended to actually play the game. Many Bomb Alley scenarios are solo exercises at best.

But the question I really want to ask you is: have you played the game FTF? That's where it really shines. I played 5 games of Bomb Alley FTF, and each time it was so fun (although nerve-wracking) an experience that I'm willing to forget these and other shortcomings. We got naval battles, great air raids and submarine heroics. Yes, the game requires time investment. In my last scenario, Taranto, I spent some time to coordinate Gibraltar and Alexandria forces, but when it all run smoothly I felt great pride and satisfaction. Now, prepairing for Matapan as an Italian commander (we switch sides each playing), I ask myself: where that Lustre convoy would go? Where should I intercept it? How much fuel my destroyers should burn? What about task forces composition? How to assign planes? etc. It's just great, and I'm at home reading Greene and Massignani.

I really don't regret taking the plunge and playing Bomb Alley.
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Matt Irsik
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A pretty accurate review and I concur with the post above that the system works very well in face to face play. Most of my experience has been on the Pacific side of things, but most of this review applies to essentially all of the series games. The rules can be a chore to get through at times, there are a number of unanswered questions where you need to guess the intent of the designer, and many of the scenarios are so one sided that they can be used as nothing more than teaching exercises for new players to the system. It is definitely a series that you want to like, but every time I play it I've come away thinking that with a little more development and love it could have been so much better.
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Lupi
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I have limited experience with this series, but in a FTF session with the ships on the display rolling for combat, may still rate as one of my top naval sims.
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Richard Diosi
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I too enjoy the ftf despite some of the qwirks within the system.

I was cajoled into playing with a friend after I had determined I didn't like the system and he turned me around...perhaps it was the scenario. I enjoy it as a good operational system now instead of the tactical system I was hoping it would be.
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Lance McMillan
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I've tried several installments in the SWWAS series and found them all unsatisfying. In my opinion, the problem is that the game system tries too hard to capture every aspect of too many different levels of command, so that the player never really comes away with a sense that he's filling a particular role, acting as everything from squadron/flotilla leader up to fleet commander. Each element considered individually works reasonably well on its own, but when taken all together you end up with a highly fiddly system that's tedious to wade through without conveying a credible narrative.

What I'd really like to see is for someone to take the system created by Ben Knight in Victory at Midway (and subsequently improved on by Markus Stumptner in Solomon Sea and Bay of Bengal) and transpose it to the Mediterranean theater. That would be one of my Dream Games...
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Edward Kendrick
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It would have been interesting had Don Greenwood ever produced the expansion of FLAT TOP to cover the Med ...
 
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Xander Fulton
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*sigh*

Wrote a much longer and more helpful reply, BGG ate it. Sorry!

Highlights were:

- I think you made some mistakes in how to do the weather, which seems to have impacted a lot of things. The scenarios define what weather condition they start in - usually '1 (Clear)'. You roll to see if the weather changes, yes, but per page 2 of the scenario book (9.8 section), it gets one step better on a 1-2 result, no change on 3-5, gets one step worse on a 6 result only. (5-6 during the October to February months). So it's both less volatile than you saw, and even when it gets bad - it gets better quick.

- It sounds like you might be doing the searches wrong? Your ships detect a task force on a roll of 3 or higher - IE., only 1 or 2 fails detection. Yes, modifiers exist, but...sounds like you were rolling quite a bit below average.

- Ditto air factors. You remembered to have multiple aircraft searching, and combined their factors together, right? With enough aircraft up, detection is more consistent.

- I think you may have made a mistake on the air missions, too. Granted, you do have to make that initial availability roll - but that only applies to LAND bases, reflecting the inter-service communication issues/rivalry of the period. Carriers do not have to do that. And when rolling to see if the take-off is successful...it's a NEGATIVE one or NEGATIVE two you have to roll higher than - IE., it's guaranteed unless you are overwhelmed with tons of modifiers.
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Tom H
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Well said Xander. I was wondering if I was playing the same game?

There are certainly faults with the maps and rules, and I dislike the bucket of dice tactical combat... but the operational game and the scenarios are fantastic and offer a real insight into the war in the Med.

I am lucky - I got a first edition with a real navy picture on the box cover - who would put a picture of a sailor pushing a mine away on a naval wargame??!! ... and why??? whistle
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Xander Fulton
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tomster wrote:
There are certainly faults with the maps and rules, and I dislike the bucket of dice tactical combat... but the operational game and the scenarios are fantastic and offer a real insight into the war in the Med.


As I'd recently mentioned in a thread on one of their WW1 games - I just bought a set of dice of multiple colors (CHX 25608, CHX 25610, and CHX 25601) to allow you to roll an entire salvo with one toss of the dice.

So, for example, Kongo (8-4-1) unloading on HMS Repulse...



...IMHO, this works really well, as you get more nuanced results than a CRT would allow for, and it resolves very quickly. Honestly, my *preference* would have been to see less die roll MODIFIERS, and actually have the game effects that would increase or reduce the to-hit values instead increase or reduce the number of dice rolled. (IE., so it's always a '6' that hits, period, but based on the ship/situation/etc you may see dice added to or removed from the pool)

Anyway, that's neither here nor there, but - use more dice, the combat resolution works very, very well then.

tomster wrote:
I am lucky - I got a first edition with a real navy picture on the box cover - who would put a picture of a sailor pushing a mine away on a naval wargame??!! ... and why??? whistle


Yyyeah...I've got no idea what those guys at Avalanche Press must have hit their heads on recently, but it was something heavy.

Original GWaS:Med cover that got me into the series:



...what they changed it to on reprint:



Dafuq? C'mon, seriously now...
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super lopez
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Hi

I have try to introduce myself in this game and the IIWW at Sea system. Definitively, I don't like it. I (we, my group) prefere the double blind systems as FLAT TOP and other games. I am not able to find the sense of the game and others of the serie.

However, we use BOMB ALLEY or even BISMARCK to play double blind campaings combining them with SEEKRIEG V system for tactical encounters.

Other thing that have surprised us is the table to generate the air forces. It produces a lot of planes for each side. I have read a lot about IIWW in the mediterranean and I think that there was'nt so many planes in campaing for an individual operation (in the game there are dozens and dozens of planes for recon, for bomb.... in each operation). We have take the decision to reduce in 1/3 the planes generated by the table.
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Joshua O'Connor
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I have first edition, and saw none of those issues with the counters. It's a beautiful game.
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Paolo Desalvo
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baradifi wrote:
I have first edition, and saw none of those issues with the counters. It's a beautiful game.

The problem with the counters is that some, like the Ba.201 that a ground based planes and was never considered as a carrier based plane. Personally I rate poor a game one with such fakes.
 
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Joshua O'Connor
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BlackSheeper wrote:
baradifi wrote:
I have first edition, and saw none of those issues with the counters. It's a beautiful game.

The problem with the counters is that some, like the Ba.201 that a ground based planes and was never considered as a carrier based plane. Personally I rate poor a game one with such fakes.


I read your posts on that with great interest, and when I play the game I will make the changes necessary to play historically.

That is a separate issue to the OP, however. I was responding to the OP's complaints about the physical qualities of the counters. My counters look great. I don't think the game deserves such a negative review for the reasons the OP states.

However, you make a great case, on historical accuracy, so if you wrote a negative review, I could understand. I think it is possible to play a historical version with a little work, though the publisher should be doing this work, not the player.
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